Author of the Month

Steve Taylor, Author of the Month for October 2008

The Fall (cont.)
The Evidence for a Golden Age, 6000 years of Insanity and the Dawning of a New Era
By Steve Taylor

Warfare and Social Oppression

There are other significant reasons why these peoples would have seen earlier times as a Golden Age. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that prehistoric human beings were much less war-like than later peoples. Archaeological studies throughout the world have found hardly any evidence of warfare during the whole of the hunter-gatherer phase of history. There are, in fact, just two indisputable cases of group violence during all of these tens of thousands of years. A cluster of sites around the Nile Valley show some signs of violence from around 12,000 BCE. The site of Jebel Sahaba, for instance, has a grave containing the bodies of over 50 people who apparently died a violent death. And in south-east Australia, there are some signs of inter-tribal fighting - as well as of other kinds of social violence such as the cranial deformation of children - at several different sites dating from 11,000 and 7,000 BCE. Lawrence Keeley's book War Before Civilisation suggests several other examples of prehistoric violence and warfare, but all of these are dubious, and have been dismissed by other scholars. For example, Keeley sees cut marks on human bones as evidence of cannibalism, when these are more likely to be the result of prehistoric funeral rituals of cleaning bones of their flesh. He also interprets highly abstract and stylised drawings in caves in Australia as depicting battles, when they are open to wide variety of other interpretations. In this way, as the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson remarks, Keeley's "rhetoric exceeds his evidence in implying war is old as humanity." (3)

The lack of evidence for warfare is striking. There are no signs of violent death, no signs of damage or disruption by warfare, and although many other artefacts have been found, including massive numbers of tools and pots, there is a complete absence of weapons. As Ferguson points out, "it is difficult to understand how war could have been common earlier in each area and remain so invisible." Archaeologists have discovered over 300 cave prehistoric "art galleries", not one of which contains depictions of warfare, weapons or warriors. In the words of the anthropologist Richard Gabriel, "For the first ninety-five thousand years after the Homo sapiens Stone age began [until 4,000 BC], there is no evidence that man engaged in war on any level, let alone on a level requiring organized group violence. There is little evidence of any killing at all." (4)

There seems to have been equality between the sexes in prehistoric times too. The fact that women provided so much of the tribe's food strongly suggests that they had equal status, since it's difficult to see how they could have low status while performing such an important economic role. The healthy, open attitude ancient hunter-gatherers had to the human body and to sex - shown by the massive numbers of sexually explicit images and objects archaeologists have discovered - suggests this too, since the oppression of women appears to be closely linked to a sense of alienation from the human body, and a negative attitude to instincts and bodily processes.

Contemporary indigenous peoples are sexually egalitarian too. Before European conquest and colonisation, many of them traced descent and ownership of property through the mother's rather than the father's side of the family. And as the anthropologist Tim Ingold notes, in "immediate return" hunter-gatherer societies (that is, societies which live by immediately using any food or other resources they collect, rather than storing them for later use), men have no authority over women. Women usually choose their own marriage partners, decide what work they want to do and work whenever they choose to, and if a marriage breaks down they have custody rights over their children. (5)

In prehistoric societies there were no status differences between individuals either. There were no different classes or castes, with people who had more power and possessions than others. For archaeologists, the most obvious signs of social inequality are differences in graves, in terms of size, position and the goods which are placed inside them. Later agricultural societies have larger, more central graves for more "important" people, which also have a lot more possessions inside them. Men generally have more "important" graves than women. But the graves of the ancient hunter-gatherers are strikingly uniform, with little or no size differences and little or no grave wealth.

Almost all contemporary hunter-gatherers show a striking absence of any of the characteristics that we associate with social inequality. The anthropologist James Woodburn speaks of the "profound egalitarianism" of immediate-return foraging peoples and emphasises that no other way of human life "permits so great an emphasis on equality." (6) Foraging peoples are also strikingly democratic. Most societies do operate with a leader of some kind, but their power is usually very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group aren't happy with their leadership. People don't seek to be leaders - in fact if anybody does show signs of a desire for power and wealth they are usually barred from consideration as leaders. And even when a person becomes a leader, they don't have the right to make decisions on their own. Decisions are made in co-operation with other respected members of the group.

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  1. Ferguson, R.B. (2000). 'The Causes and Origins of Primitive Warfare.' Anthropological Quarterly, 73.3, 159-164, p.159. [back to text]
  2. Gabriel, R. (1990). The Culture of War: Invention and Early Development. New York: Greenwood Press, p. 21. [back to text]
  3. Ingold, T., Riches, D. & Woodburn, J. (Eds.). (1988). Hunters and Gatherers, Volume 2: Property, Power and Ideology. Oxford: Berg. [back to text]
  4. Woodburn, J. (1982). 'Egalitarian Societies.' Man, 17, 431-51, p.432. [back to text]

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